Many applications ask for an essay on a person who influenced you or on an important experience. There are wrinkles to this kind of question–in some cases, the “person” can be a fictional character and the influence can be a work of art, as in one of the prompts from the Common Application in recent years. (Note–this is possible as an approach for prompts like the “person of influence” that begins tthe 2017-2018 Princeton application essays, but this is a reach; they really want insight into your personal experience, your world view and experiences, and living through a fictional character is a stretch–though I have had clients pull it off. The key is to choose good books that have occupied a large place in your life and influenced your perspective, curiosity and interests. On the other hand, if you are really into a specific character, why not just turn to an author who has influenced you–that might work. Of course the same topic focus could work for a different prompt, in this year’s Princeton essays, that could be anything from culture to the quote-from-a-book prompt.)
This post will discuss this kind of prompt by specifically addressing prompts three and four of the Common Application for 2011-2012, but the discussion in general is useful for any essay about a personal influence, including those that will have that topic in 2017-2018.
Let’s start by looking at the old Common App prompts three and prompt four together, as they in some ways overlap, and they are similar to Princeton’s personal influence prompt for this year:
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.
4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence
Like Prompt Four, Prompt Three is based on personal experience, but the intent of the prompters is that the essay on Prompt Three be about a person with whom you have direct, personal experience. This is the kind of autobiographical essay commonly taught in high school, and I see many of these essays written about coaches, teachers and other mentor figures. Your college admissions officers also see many essays like this. Keep that in mind. You might want to visit my earlier posts about audience and the rhetorical situation, beginning here.
Less commonly, I have seen essays on Prompt Three about the influence of, say, a younger sibling or of a person the writer has met only once but who made a profound impact on the writer. While most who address this prompt write about a positive experience or influence, some writers examine more ambiguous or even malevolent figures in their lives.
This post continues analyzing this essay prompt in detail and concludes with exercises to help you write a vivid and appealing essay.
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